Most homebuyers would not put "walking time" at the top of their priority list when selecting a neighborhood.
But many people have chosen Fallstaff as their home for that very feature. For the past 15 years, Orthodox Jewish families, whose faith prohibits them from driving on the Sabbath, have been picking this community because they can easily walk to synagogue.
"People want to live within a 20- to 30-minute walk," said Aryeh Goetz, homeownership director of Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., better known as CHAI. Fallstaff, which straddles Park Heights Avenue in the northwestern corner of the city, is a neighborhood of stately homes, rowhouses, apartment buildings and synagogues. According to Goetz, of 19 shuls or houses of worship between Northern Parkway and the city line, 17 are Orthodox. The majority are in Fallstaff, making it a favorite choice for these young families.
The community has an interesting diversity even among its Jewish residents. Aside from a variety of religious philosophies within the Orthodox groups, there is a Sephardic sect and an increasing number of Russian Jews. They all attend their own synagogues, some of which were once large single-family homes.
Fallstaff's housing stock can be summed up as semi-detached rowhouses on the western side of Park Heights and detached homes on the east, with apartment buildings of all sizes scattered throughout.
The houses to the east can be quite impressive in size, ranging in style from Tudor to brick neo-colonials. There is also a large number of modestly sized homes on Shelburne and Bonnie roads. Some blocks, such as on Olympia Avenue, even have a few examples of post-World War II modern architecture.
"It's an upscale, very prestigious area," explained Sharon Zuckerbrod, an agent with Fiola Blum Inc. She's listing a home on Labyrinth Road for $329,900 that has four bedrooms, three full baths, a new kitchen and a huge family room.
Zuckerbrod has sold three homes in the neighborhood, mostly to out-of-towners. "I have a waiting list of buyers who want to move into the Westbrook-Labyrinth-Fallstaff Road area," she said.
Another of Zuckerbrod's listings is a rowhouse on Fallstaff Road west of Park Heights. The end-of-row unit with five bedrooms is offered for $77,900.
Along with homeownership counseling, CHAI refers people to lenders who have special below-market financing for first-time homebuyers and also offers financial assistance to cover closing costs and renovations for homes mainly between Park Heights and Reisterstown Road.
Most of the housing on that side of Park Heights was built in the 1940s and 1950s and needs updating. "What was upscale then, isn't upscale now," Goetz said. Still, the semi-detached homes offer a good housing value, he explained, with a price range of $60,000 to $80,000 for three to four bedrooms.
As in many Baltimore neighborhoods, longtime homeowners are now elderly, and many find it difficult to keep up with maintenance on their homes. CHAI has programs for low- and moderate-income senior citizens to help make repairs.
Fallstaff also has a large number of apartment buildings, including garden apartments such as Cross Country Manor, high-rises such as Park Tower West and even a very handsome art deco style complex, the Samester Apartments. One of the first Federal Housing Administration housing projects, the three-story structure was built in 1936 of red and black glazed brick with stainless steel entry canopies and glass block flanking the entrance doors.
In a renovation completed a year ago, Samester got new roofs, new air conditioning and heating, and new kitchens and baths. Occupancy has been at 97 percent, according to its owner, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. "It far exceeded our expectations for rentals," said Bob Kaplan, development director for Struever. The project won a Baltimore Heritage 2000 Preservation Award last summer.
Baltimore's Jewish population has historically been divided onto two groups: German Jews who first came here in the 1840s and 1850s and Eastern Europeans in the 1880s. Both groups originally lived in East Baltimore around Lombard Street and the Jones Falls, with German Jews moving northwestward in the late 19th century, to around Eutaw Place and Mount Royal Avenue. The migration continued along this northwestern route, eventually making Park Heights Avenue the spine of Baltimore's Jewish community.
Fallstaff was once the home of many of the city's wealthiest Jews, who built large houses on estates near the Maryland Country Club.
Large tracts along Park Heights were sold off for development, which accelerated after World War II. Several large synagogues such as Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, once in the Eutaw Place corridor, moved into Fallstaff in the 1950s. Another, Oheb Shalom, was designed by Walter Gropius, one of the founders of the modern architectural movement called the International Style.
These shuls remain, but draw most of their congregations from outside Fallstaff, according to Barry Schliefer, head of the Fallstaff Improvement Association.
One of the signs that a neighborhood is healthy is the sound of children. Even on a weekday in Fallstaff, mothers can be seen pushing carriages or chauffeuring kids around in vans.
"It's a quiet, stable neighborhood," Schliefer said. "And right now, we're thriving."
Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 20 minutes
Public schools: Cross Country Elementary, Fallstaff Middle, Northwestern High
Shopping: Reisterstown Road Plaza, Fallstaff Shopping Center
ZIP codes: 21209, 21215